Everything is a Remix

March 5, 2012

The Song Remains the Same. Remix Inc. The Elements of Creativity. System Failure. These four parts constitute “Everything is a Remix,” a series that explains the presence of copying, transforming and combining in music, film, technology and law. Now that the four-part video series is complete, Iker Gil interviews Kirby Ferguson, creator and producer of the series, to discuss the project, the ingredients of creativity, and the implications of remixing on ownership.


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Kirby Ferguson at the Gel Conference 2011. © Gene Driskell.

IG: How did you conceive the series “Everything is a Remix” and what is its overall goal?

KF: It started to brew during the first wave of copyright hysteria, around 2007, when wacky and sometimes vicious copyright lawsuits seemed to be a weekly event. I started to think there was some way to illustrate the hypocrisy of that situation by concentrating on creativity itself. After a long while, the major examples—Led Zeppelin, George Lucas, and Apple—fell into place and I realized I had good elements with which to build a narrative.

The goal of “Everything is a Remix” is to illustrate that feelings of absolute ownership over a creation are illusory. Of course, the creation is yours to some degree—you made it—but it relies on the work of others to an extent that most of us aren’t aware of because of our biases.

IG: “Everything is a Remix” is divided into four parts, covering music, film, technology and law. Can you explain why you chose those specific topics? I think architecture could be another interesting topic to cover. Do you have any other topics that you would like to develop?

KF: It was just my personal tastes, really. I have knowledge in all those areas, so I chose that path, but it could just as easily have been, say, architecture, fashion and religion. But I don’t know much about those, so I’d have to develop them from the ground up. I don’t plan to cover more areas, but who knows?

IG: Can you talk more about the 4th part, dealing with law, the culture of ownership and what we think is ours?

KF: Part 4 gets into some of the psychological reasons for why we are sensitive about being copied, but insensitive about copying, and then jumps headlong into the legal realm. It covers the basic history of intellectual property and some of the major twists and turns that have gotten us where we are now.

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Screen capture from Part 4 of “Everything is a Remix.” © Kirby Ferguson.

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Screen capture from Part 4 of “Everything is a Remix.” © Kirby Ferguson.

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Screen capture from Part 4 of “Everything is a Remix.” © Kirby Ferguson.

IG: Since you recognize that everything is a remix, how do you feel about ownership? What are the implications of remixing in ownership?

KF: That’s the complicated part, of course. For me, I aspire to stay independent, release everything I do for free and earn money in ways that the media creation complements. What happens to my media after I release it won’t be my concern.

I recognize that for larger ventures it’s much more complicated. Nonetheless, I think we need to clearly distinguish between remixing and piracy. American law, which originated in the eighteenth-century, doesn’t do that. It’s all treated the same way. I think any remixing that is not for profit should be entirely legal. That’s basically where we are right now anyway, it’s not reflected in law.

I also think unauthorized remixing that is transformative should be legal, and I think the term “transformative” should be applied liberally. This is arguably already possible using the American “fair use” exception in copyright law, but it’s rarely exercised due to fear of getting financially obliterated by a lawsuit. I think one of the reasons Girl Talk doesn’t get sued is because he holds the position that his work is transformative and thus fair use. If someone takes him to court and loses, it will be an important precedent and the floodgates will be opened.

IG: Let’s use the case of Girl Talk as an example. He is a musician producing mashup remixes that he distributes under Creative Commons licenses for free and basically makes money from the concerts. Is this example pointing to a new viable model of business?

KF: Sure, that’s one way to do it. I do a variation of that: I give the media away and make money from public speaking, commission and donations. There’s plenty of ways to make money other than selling your media: crowdfunding, merchandise, sponsorships, ads, affiliate fees, memberships. Popular media has mostly been free or extremely cheap—newspaper, radio, tv, the web—so giving media away is nothing new.

IG: You mention that Copy, Transform and Combine are the key ingredients of creativity. Are there any other ways to be creative?

KF: I personally don’t think so. Those are vast categories and I think they cover everything.

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Screen captures from Part 4 of “Everything is a Remix.” © Kirby Ferguson.

IG: Which elements (law, cultural, political…) facilitate remixing versus the ones that prevent it? For example, copyright vs Creative Commons.

KF: Creative Commons licenses generally permit remixing, though not all of them do. Even better than Creative Commons is the public domain, older works whose copyright has expired. American works published before 1923 are in the public domain. That doesn’t amount to much in the realms of moving images and music, but old photos, illustrations, paintings and novels can all be sliced and diced to your heart’s content.

IG: What is your next project?

KF: It’s a political series, which will have a similar format to “Everything is a Remix” but a very different style. If you watch “Everything is a Remix Part 4” you can hear more about it at the end of the video.